Culinary Confessions: I Cook Best Without Recipes

Culinary Confessions

“Culinary Confessions” is a series that opens the books on our eating habits and shares our shopping, cooking, dining and diet strategies with you.

I have a bold admission: The best dishes I cook in the kitchen don’t come from following recipes.

For a married man who started a food blog with his wife Molly to frequently share favorite recipes (and restaurants), I most enjoy cooking when I create something using ingredients I already have in the kitchen. In these cases, the only guidelines I follow are the common sense rules that keep me from burning the food, myself and the kitchen.

To be clear, I don’t suggest baking without a recipe unless you have a strong working knowledge of culinary science—how things rise or otherwise react when combined in an oven. Going off the script works best when you’re cooking something that’s not akin to a cake, for example. There’s less of a chance of ending up with an inedible mess when you get spontaneous with ingredients that are fail-safe.

Think “Chopped,” the Food Network show where chefs compete by making courses with a random basket of ingredients they’re assigned. What’s in the basket can make many different meals, but it’s up to each chef to decide what happens. Here’s an example:

Recently, I had a half-pound of cooked, seasoned lean ground beef, an aging avocado, half a can of tomatoes and chiles, some leftover slow-cooker black beans and a quarter of a wheel of queso fresco, among other items, in the fridge and pantry. If I had tortillas, the answer to the question of “What should I make?” would be easy for anyone. But I didn’t have tortillas or flour for homemade tortillas, so conventional tacos were off the table. So what could I do?

Two words: taco bowls!

I mixed the beef with the beans and chiles, topped it with slices of the avocado and then crumbled the cheese on top, all divided in a pair of bowls for me and Molly. In less than a half-hour, I went from having no idea what we’d eat for dinner (because it was time to make a run to the grocery store) to a tasty and filling meal that also wasn’t too awfully unhealthy! I call that “Improv Cooking,” improvising with what I have and inventing something unexpected.

I understand that for a lot of people this doesn’t sound like fun at all. And it does come with a major caveat: You must be willing to be disciplined to plan meals in advance and make regular visits to the grocery store, not just quick trips whenever you’re missing an ingredient for a last-minute recipe.

If you’re willing to plan meals, make a list, go shopping for a full cart and then stick to the plan and cook the meals you envisioned, you’re almost guaranteed to end up with odds and ends that can make even more meals. That, in turn, stretches your dollar and potentially yields a few major benefits.

1. You don’t waste as much food. When you’re willing to get creative by using a combination of leftovers, unused groceries and pantry staples, you use up more of what’s already in your kitchen.

2. Because you use what you already have on hand to make meals, you spend less money on dining out and buying new groceries.

3. If you have a family of unpicky eaters, you just might invent a new favorite family recipe you never would have discovered if you stuck to the recipe!

Do you improvise in the kitchen? Have you created a new recipe by surprise? If you aren’t comfortable cooking without a true recipe, do you have questions about how to do it?

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